Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs isn’t just a tongue-twister of a name—it’s also the moniker of one of the most well-known garage rock bands. Known for their novelty songs and middle eastern-style costumes, the group quickly caught viewers’ attention with their appearances on Hullabaloo and The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s. Below, we look at the history of the name Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
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Meaning Behind the Band Name
Born Domingo Samudio in 1937 in Dallas, Texas, Samudio would later be known by his stage name. “Sam the Sham.” Soon after graduating high school, Samudio enlisted in the Army and served during the Vietnam War where he was given the nickname “Big Sam,” living in Panama for six years before he was discharged. He then returned home to Texas in 1961 where he studied voice at the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1963, Samudio adopted the stage name “Sam the Sham” and was the organist in a Louisiana-based band that would become Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs when they relocated to Memphis, Tennessee.
[RELATED: Behind the Song: “Wooly Bully” by Sam The Sham & The Pharoahs]
“By that time, everyone was calling me ‘Sam,’ short for Samudio, and what I was doing—fronting the band and cutting up—was called ‘shamming’,” Samudio explained, according to the band’s biography at the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. An alternate explanation of the ‘Sham’ nickname states that it derives from his bandmates’ tendency to tease Samudio over his perceived lack of organ-playing skills.
“To questions regarding the origins of the term ‘sham,’ Samudio answered that it was ‘rhythm-and-blues jargon for shuffling, twisting or jiving around to music,'” explains the Texas State Historical Association. “Before taking up the organ, Samudio ‘shammed’ while he sang, so he found the term a fitting one for the band’s name.”
In addition to the unique name, the band also drew attention for their lavish, Egyptian-like garb that featured turbans, robes, and bejeweled jackets. “Inspired by the costumes worn in the film The Ten Commandments, Samudio named his first band the Pharaohs and they adopted the flamboyant style of the Egyptians in the movie,” according to the Memphis Music Hall of Fame website.
In 1965, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs shot to the top of the charts with “Wooly Bully,” written solely by Samudio. The song hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has sold three million copies worldwide, solidifying itself as the band’s signature hit. They struck gold again in 1966 with “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” which also reached No. 2 on the Hot 100, with “Ju Ju Hand,” “The Hair on My Chinny Chin Chin” and “How Do You Catch a Girl” also peaking inside the top 30 on the all-genre chart.
Their tenure on the charts was short-lived, the group disbanded in 1967. Samudio has lived quite a life, working as a carny before he was a chart-topping singer. After leaving the industry, he worked on commercial fishing boats in the Gulf of Mexico and then became a motivational speaker. Samudio was inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
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